Kate Bernheimer’s first collection, “Horse, Flower, Bird,” plumbed the depths of the estranged female domestic. There’s plenty of that here, too, but “How a Mother Weaned Her Girl From Fairy Tales” swings wide, turning to ecological disaster, Anthropocene devastation, extinction and addiction. As the title suggests, some stories teeter on metafiction, or rather, meta-tale. Familiar fairy tales often make cameos.
In “Professor Helen C. Andersen,” one of the more realistic tales, an aging professor grows jealous of her new young colleague who writes stories that arise via telepathy. In the title story, a girl demands dolls that tell stories, which puts her mother in a peculiar place: “When she went to the department store on birthdays or Christmas, she often left empty-handed, destined to disappoint her only child.” These tales sometimes threaten to leave the general audience behind, but Bernheimer manages to tickle the cerebrum without sacrificing surface pleasures. The emotional hook for many of these tales lies in the familiar: Mothers try not to disappoint daughters; fathers grapple with single-parenthood; librarians seek solace in books. The real magic is in the deft transfer of the plainly stated fantasy. One of the darker, more affecting tales, “The Girl With the Talking Shadow,” inspired by “Peter Pan,” begins, “My shadow learned to walk when I learned to walk, and her first word was also my own.”
The book is small, the stories short but by no means breezy. It’s helpful to approach it like you would approach poetry: Read one, let it settle, read it again. Some pages brim with text, while others offer up a swath of white space, which often carry varying levels of suspense. Each tale is broken up by one-page vignettes that riff on an illustration at the top of the page. These are less memorable, but often suggestive and dark and sometimes hair-static haunting.
The moniker, “one of the living masters of the fairy tale,” often appears in a Bernheimer byline. These days, it’s hard to take bold claims seriously. Everyone’s a writer. Everyone’s a critic. Anyone can make a claim. You want to reject it, chalk it up to hype, but you can’t. Because even when these tales spiral into gloomy subject matter or cast an opaque light, they beg to be reread. There are little surprises and rewards for the careful reader. The color pink, for instance, comes up a lot, as well as vodka, animals, the woods, coming-of-age and dualism. Master? Grab a blanket. Put your back to the tree. Hear the whispering pine and say “Amen” to that.
Josh Cook is the editor at large of Minneapolis-based “Thirty Two Magazine.